Wednesday, January 30, 2013

EQ Myth - Busted

I got involved in a discussion about being able to put something back that you take out with EQ. I maintained that with good filters and careful setting, whatever you cut with one EQ can be restored by setting another EQ with the exact opposite settings. My counterpart in the discussion thought that even if you could come close it would be a phase nightmare. I decided not to get into the phase myth and carried on by saying that except for insertion losses (ie. the quality of the gear) there should be no difference. (Read this article though if you're interested in the phase thing.)

Mathematically it checks out. I'm not a smart enough monkey to go to all the trouble of working out the equations for the filters. But what I had at my disposal was a pair of EQs I could play with, match settings, and have no insertion loss. I dropped a track in my DAW and set up a real time analyzer plugin to have a fairly long sample time and took a screen shot at a marked point. 
Then I dropped in an EQ with a 12 dB cut at 1 kHz, two octaves wide and took another screen shot. The trace you see in blue is with that filter in place.
All that remained was to add a second EQ down stream from the first and place a filter at 1 kHz with a 12 dB boost and see how the traces lined up.
The third trace is in white and you can see that it pretty closely matches up to the original. I even made it 50% transparent so you could see that there's only one tiny spot (at around 200) that's different. There's a slight difference in there because there was likely around 100 milliseconds of reaction time because I didn't have any way to automate my screen shots.

No phase issues. I rigged up a hot key to enable either both filters or neither, then closed my eyes and pressed it enough times that I wasn't sure which state things were in. When I pressed play and toggled back and forth I could hear  no discernible difference in tonality. I even threw a phase meter on it and it didn't see any issues.

That got me to thinking why some people might run in to phase issues if they tried this in a venue, or even if they didn't, why they think they're getting phase issues from their EQs. I think the answer is in the settings and the quality of the gear. If you're using a twin third octave EQ on your main mix and you're not particularly careful about where you put the faders when you're setting things up, you could easily miss by a little. Even if you didn't, depending on the tolerances in the components you could still wind up with a bit of difference. Now anything that comes through the system in mono, like your lead vocals that are panned right up the middle, will be coming at you from two separate sources with slightly different responses. Phase issues.

So there you have it Brethren of the Knob and Fader. A real live myth of the audio world, busted right here with somewhat scientific practices for your edification.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Getting Used To Digital Mixing

It's the age old skeptical question: Why do I need flying faders? It's asked by people who don't see what the big deal is about digital consoles and think that paging through fader layers will slow them down. In a lot of cases you can still get away without needing to worry about it. Small shows need small mixers and if you can fit everything in then that's great.

It's when the advantage of having a smaller form factor and higher input count that things start to matter. The simple fact is that it usually takes less than 200 milliseconds to snap between layers on a digital console (literally the blink of an eye) and if you know your layout it's actually much less trouble to snap from page one to page two or three than to take two or even three steps from one end of a large format analog console to the other. 
But what about the really small digi desks? I'm talking about the ones that cram dozens of inputs into a frame that has say eight channel faders and eight or ten in the master section. I'll use an imaginary rock show to demonstrate.

Let's take eight drum inputs, bass, two guitars, keys and four vocals. That's sixteen channels so you'll have just drums on your first page of faders, the rest of the band on page two and effects returns and music playback on the third page. Honestly even on an analog mix I just don't touch the drums that much inside the drum group. Maybe once a song I'll change the relationship between the kick in and out mics or the snare top and bottom. It's not hard to see how paging back for those isn't really a problem, especially if you've got a drum group in the center section to make over all mix changes. (On a side note, you can have that stereo drum group show up on a single fader on most digi consoles so you've still got seven left in this example.)

That leaves instruments and vocals on page two and that's where you'll stay parked most of the night. But what if you need to work on the drums and something happens while you're on that page? Well, you can press the page button and in less than half a second be on the correct page to tame that wild guitar solo, or you can route a few important channels to subs or VCAs in the master section so they're always there no matter what page you're on. I'd put a handle on the effects returns as well. So even if you're busy tweaking the high hat EQ on page one, you can still grab a guitar solo or vocal change or re-balance the effects just by reaching over to the master section.

So that sorts out a small rock show and even one of a much larger size. I feel like I could easily handle a band with twice that many inputs on the same imaginary console. So that answers that, but then the theatre people speak up and start to complain about not being able to mix when paging.

I would say a similar setup could work. Let's take a high school show with eighteen radio mics, three across the front of the stage and a couple channels of playback for sound effects. Right away I'd set up a handle for the fronts and sound cues in the master section. Then I'd make a handle for male leads and female leads as they'll probably be the best actors, have the best technique and therefore need the least mixing. That lets me page back to the bit parts and mix those on the faders while I keep track of the leads with my other hand on the master section. With the cues you can even change what actors show up on those faders.

You also probably don't want to trust that the actors are going to perform in accordance with previously recorded fader moves, but the flying faders are still useful. My procedure would be to have each scene clear the faders from the previous scene and then raise the next faders I'm going to need a couple points so I know what to grab.

Then there's the benefit of having the faders do things besides the main mix. With a graphic EQ available on every output, it's super quick to take care of those on the fader tray instead of having to turn to an outboard rack or page through a sub menu. Mixing auxes on the fader tray is a joy as well. Consoles that have good scribble strip implementation make things easy as well, especially the ones that utilize color coding.

So that's my explanation of the virtues of motorized faders in multiple layers for those of us who haven't seen the light yet. Keep an open mind you Junior Brethren of the Knob and Fader. Some day digital will make a lot of sense for what you're working on and you'll likely never look back.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

SNR Podcast #33 - 1/27/2013 - Learning Pro Tools, New Digi Consoles

Jon Dayton and Anth Kosobucki relate their experiences this week trying to get Jon up to speed on Pro Tools. After complaining for a while they move on to the multitude of small format digital mixers that made their debut at NAMM this week. It's an exciting time! As always you can check out the YouTube version right here or use the MP3 link below to stream or save for later.

  • SNR Podcast #33 - 1/27/2013 - Jon Dayton & Anth Kosobucki talk about learning Pro Tools and a host of new digital consoles hitting the market.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Soundcraft Aims to Change the Game

I'm not usually one to go all ga-ga come NAMM time but every once in a while there's something to get excited about. This time around it's Soundcraft taking aim at the budget digital console market with the new Si Expression desks. 

I'll admit that I've been strongly curious about Behringer's offering, the X32. I've been wanting a compact digital mixer for a while now and the Presonus just wasn't doing it although I'm always happy to mix on one, especially in the theatre. Desks like the A&H GLD and Soundcraft Si Compact were very interesting but out of reach for many small PA companies. Most of us small fry can't even dream about the Midas Pro2.

So now that Uli Behringer so graciously opened the door with what is quite honestly shaping up to be a pretty good option, I'm glad I didn't jump right on board as an early adopter. Now that my favorite maker of digi desks is out of the gates with one that I can afford to take on bar gigs and do community theatre with I'm pretty excited. Prices aren't out yet but it's definitely an X32 killer from initial reports.

I won't bore you with the details Brethren of the Knob and Fader. For myself, FaderGlow, BSS, dbx, Lexicon, and other goodies inside trump Midas-esque mic pres. The Behringer might not ever become rider approved but I think these just might. Check out the link below and draw your own conclusions.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Learning Pro Tools

If you're looking for a Pro Tools tutorial this isn't it. I'm just here to complain. We're starting a recording project at work shortly in a studio that like all other studios is equipped with Pro Tools. I've been working in Reaper for most of a decade because I tend not to have to pass anything off to a studio. So it was high time I got back into it. I say back into it because the last time I messed with it was in 1999 when upgrading the studios at school from PT3 to PT4.

I have to say that I was a little excited to finally find out what all the hubub was about. Sure, I've had my knocks against it. Like every time there's an update and PT users finally get something that Reaper users have had for ages. (Clip based gain anyone?) But if it's the industry standard DAW it must be pretty good right?

I started my lesson by reading about half the manual to PT8 because that's what they have at the studio. I only read half of it because the half pertaining to MIDI didn't pertain to moi. Then I journeyed over to Brother Anth's place of employment for a tour and some tracking in PT 10.

I spent the first hour grousing about how difficult PT makes things that are pretty simple in Reaper. Then I asked him a bunch of questions about how to do stuff that he doesn't usually do and we both dug into the manual for a while. Eventually though we had to get some work done and I sat down at the helm.

Tracking seemed pretty easy but when it came time to punch or edit I was all thumbs. After a few fumbles though I could see that it would just be a matter of some practice to unlearn all the keyboard shortcuts that are so familiar to me.

All in all I can't really see anything that should be keeping Pro Tools on top of the heap other than that it's firmly entrenched. It's better suited to tracking audio than Logic or Ableton but people do it on those platforms. The only reason people don't go to anything else is that evrybody has Pro Tools. The thing is though, there's not really any guarantee that it will stay on top of the heap. 
With up and coming engineers starting out on Reaper because they're broke, you could see it popping up more and more in the future as they grow into the business. Nothing guarantees that Avid will keep the train on the tracks. Things might stay just the way they are or it could be a brand new world in the blink of an eye. 
Grumble all you want and flame me in the comments. But before you do, I present the case of the Sony PCM-3324. It was the digital reel to reel that absolutely everybody had to have. It was the new standard for digital audio, there was literally one in every room that mattered. And then overnight they became obsolete. Pro Tools happened. What happens when Pro Tools gets Pro Tool-ed?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Direct Box Reversal

I've just got a quick trick for you today. Direct boxes get used improperly all the time. People use them when they need to get from a line level signal on TRS connectors to XLR connectors. While this setup will pass audio there's an impedance change going on in there that's not doing you any favors. On a side note I wish there was a test you had to pass before anyone would sell you those mic cables with XLR on one end and TRS on the other. They have a purpose and it is NOT plugging a low z mic into a line input. But I digress.

Direct boxes are useful for more than just getting unbalanced line level signals down the snake and into a mic input. One common use is to feed line level outputs to mic level inputs, like matrix outs to the mic inputs on a camera. Passive DIs are bidirectional. You can even go a step further and daisy chain multiple DIs to feed a bunch of cameras at say, a press conference. The right way to do it is with a distribution amp but in a pinch a stack of DIs will do the trick. 

You can use this same trick to feed into mic pres in the studio. Take a track that you pulled in through a garden variety A/D converter and send it out for some tube warmth, even if the external channel strip doesn't have line level inputs. The DI will make sure those inputs see the right impedance and aren't loaded improperly.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Care and Feeding of Sound Guys

The title is a bit tongue in cheek but the purpose of this post is to help you get rid of some of the aggravation that comes with having to talk to people while mixing. Of course those of us who mix in bars will still get that one drunk that thinks you're in the band and wants them to play a particular song. Of course stage mothers will still come up and holler that they can't hear their little Billy. But for people you work with all the time there is etiquette to talking to a sound guy and if you're not up to educating people just send them this post.

The correct way to address a sound guy while he's mixing is to approach from the side and slightly behind. If he's clearly actively mixing wait a few seconds to see if you can get his attention. If it's something vital like a breakdown or a musician signaling for a monitor mix fix then by all means a tap on the shoulder is acceptable. Remember to stay just slightly behind though. (There's nothing like being responsible for a large console and having half of it unreachable because someone is standing with their belt buckle on fader twenty-four and you're stuck at the master section.) 

Keep in mind that even if a sound guy doesn't look like he's tied up, he's likely responsible to keep track of at least four musicians and a dozen channels of audio at the bare minimum. He might not be frantically turning knobs but if he's worth his salt he's still actively engaged with what's going on up on stage. Say what you have to say with as few words as possible, wait for a reply if needed and back off. It's that simple.
I'm pretty fortunate that people where I work just seem to get this. Everyone from the head pastor to the junior intern approaches me this way and I never asked them to. They're just polite, considerate human beings. Some have even apologized for interrupting but I always make it clear that input is welcome, especially if it's about something broken that I'm not aware of.

It's a two way street Brethren of the Knob and Fader. There are many in our field who confirm the image of the testy, uncaring sound guy. It's up to us to put everyone we work with, from the musicians to the crowd (and yes, even that annoying stage mother) at ease. If you get complaints, don't make excuses, say thanks for the information and then do your best to fix it. Run your venue like a gentleman and you won't have to defend yourself. People who already know and love you will do it for you.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Kick Drum Trick

We've talked about this drum micing trick on the podcast a couple times so I thought I'd trot it out for our non-listening Brethren of the Knob and Fader. It's pretty common to see two kick drum mics these days both live and in the studio. One picks up the beater click and the other captures the boom. It's nice to be able to tailor the sound based on the performance. But how do you go about getting great kick drum sound if you only have one mic or channel available?
We've used this trick multiple times with a Shure 52 but it should work with almost anything. For it to work the drum needs to have a front head on and a hole in that so you can get the mic inside. Finding the sweet spot in the usual method where you point the mic at the beater and then move it in and out to get a balance between click and boom can be tedious. Instead, turn the mic around and aim it up. Somewhere around four to eight inches in from the front head, looking up at the corner of the rim is what you're going for.
Once you get the hang of it I think you'll find that it gives you a really nice blend of attack and resonance. Because the mic is aimed at the resonant head you may find results vary due to tuning. This won't work so well if the drum is tuned up very tight but you've got bigger problems if that's the case. One of the benefits though is that instead of getting direct beater sound you capture it as it reflects off the internal surfaces. I find the result is very similar to pairing a 52 with a PZM but all you need is the 52 or something similar.

As with anything your results will vary. The nice thing though is that this isn't restricted to just one type of mic. I haven't tried it myself but I have a feeling that an RE-20, D12, D112 or even a humble SM57 would work. Give it a try next time you're micing up a kit and let us know how it works out for you. Hit the comment section or drop us a line of Facebook.

Anth Kosobucki was good enough to whip up a mini podcast with some examples. Take a few minutes and hear how he did it with a D112.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

SNR Podcast #32 - 1/20/2013 - DAW Outboard, Impedance

This week hosts Jon Dayton and Anth Kosobucki get into patching in outboard gear when using a DAW. That leads to impedance matching and how important or not important it is depending on what you're doing. Then they wrap up by going over a couple current projects. As always you can check out the YouTube version right here or use the MP3 link below to stream or save for later.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Mic Pres - Location, Location, Location

In a world where audio gear just keeps getting better and better it takes constant work to find ways to make your work better as well. With microscopic detail within reach of so many people, here's something to help a little with noise reduction.

In the live world, sound systems are getting more and more faithful by the minute. Line array systems are a big factor in this but so is everything up stream. It's possible to hear the difference in the length of the speaker cables now, which is why guys like Dave Rat are flying their amp racks and feeding them digital signal. The big thing that has to do with location though is the mic pres. 

Digital snake technology is sufficiently robust that the mic pres can live on stage and the digital signal can be fed out to multiple desks over CAT-5 cable or coax. That means there's likely less than 100 feet of mic cable between the most distant input and the purity of the digital world. Things like RF interference and capacitance no longer take a toll on the signal.

In the studio this can make a difference too. If you think otherwise, arm forty-eight tracks and run the gain up to unity. Don't bother writing in, I know what you'll hear. The idea of getting the mic pres close to the source and keeping the cables with low level mic signal on them is a sound one. 
Some people are cringing now at the thought of running a bunch of lines back to the desk. They're probably remembering hooking up a CD player to a console with a splitter and a guitar cord back in junior high though. Balanced connections are the key. Mic cables are quieter than guitar cables because they're carrying balanced audio. TRS 1/4" cables do as well. Any RF or other noise will have less effect on a line level signal of somewhere around one volt than it will on an infinitesimal mic level signal. In a lot of cases the existing studio wiring can be used because a lot of mic pres use XLR outputs for line level signal to take advantage of  just such practices.  You could even go one better and put your converters right out in the live room and just get longer lines back to the computer.

It's not going to improve any one input by much. But multiply it by a few dozen channels and the difference will be real. Give it a try some time Brethren of the Knob and Fader and give yourself a leg up on the competition.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Teaching Sound

Education is major part of our industry. Anyone working in audio is on a life long journey to gather knowledge and experience and most of us to some degree pass that information on. More often than not it's in the context of trying to get some misinformed person to understand the way things really are. Fighting misconceptions is no way to teach. Sometimes though we get an opportunity to help people out who are starting with a clean slate. Working with school and community theatre projects or teaching volunteers at a church are good examples.

But where do you start? It's not that common these days but it's a similar endeavor to teaching someone how to use a computer. How do you go about teaching complex operations to someone who's never used a mouse? Sometimes people in the forums will answer that question with a laundry list of all the arts and sciences a neophyte will need to learn. Basic physics and electrics, electronic theory, filters, dynamic processing, acoustics, equalization, balance, and the list goes on and on. And you're standing in front of someone who may not know the difference between a guitar amp and a line array.

My current method is to locate a book so they can wade through a lot of the basics on their own. My current favorite is Live Sound Fundamentals. That lets them start to understand the physics, basic signal routing and processing and possibly more on their own time. Once their up to a certain level it's a lot easier to start building them up. Some of them will already know a few things, some of the material will make a light bulb go on, and some of it will be incomprehensible. Once it's all in their heads though it can surface later as the learning process goes on.

Lesson one though is pretty easy to define though. When I'm faced with a bunch of fresh faced junior high kids that need to know how to run the house system for the play I've got a ten minute lesson that will get them through the week without making their little heads explode. Mic, cable, snake, console, amp, speaker. Then I cover the trim knob and fader, explaining coarse and fine adjustment. If they're still with me I'll cover EQ just a tiny bit.

Even that is a lot to start out with and a lot of times it will take going over it every day for a week before it sinks in. The big thing to remember is not to give them too much. I've run in to people who have been mixing at their church for years and have no idea about anything in between the trim and the faders. It's like that section of the console just doesn't exist. It's pretty fun to explain that an aux bus is like another row of faders and watch the light bulb go on.

Just keep at it Brethren of the Knob and Fader. Education is part of the job. Keep training yourself and share your knowledge every chance you get. In an industry infused with misinformation and sometimes even outright superstition it's an up hill battle. But it's one worth fighting.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Piano Micing - With Audio Examples

I haven't had to mic up a live piano in a while but I wound up talking to someone about it the other day. The simple answer is that there is really no wrong way to do it. You use what you have available and try different things to get the sound you want out of it. You don't have to invest $8000 on some custom tailored piano bar mic. Anything from the humble SM57 on up will get sound into the PA or on to tape. (I use the tape as a nickname for any type of recording, old habits die hard.)

What really matters most is the positioning and how the piano itself sounds and is set up. On an upright you can mic the sound board or the more adventurous might try opening the lid and delving inside. On stage a solo piano will be wide open and facing the audience. Sharing the stage with a rock band means the lid will be closed (maybe at half stick in some cases). That can restrict what you're doing but a PZM and some gaff tape can be used to get decent sounds from inside a closed piano. Sometimes it's more about keeping the band out of the piano than anything else.

Let's go with a grand piano with the lid open. Probably most people won't have access to a Steinway or a Bosendorfer so let's assume it's something commonly seen like a Yamaha baby grand. These examples are all for a single mic and a mono recording. We'll save the live stuff for another time. First you have to choose what type of sound you're looking for. Dynamic mics will sound less detailed but shouldn't be ruled out.As you get into more complex mic arrangements having a less sensitive mic as part of it can be useful for getting more body into the sound.

For something ambient a good choice can be to place the mic near the player's head. It's a common place to hear a piano from and should sound pretty familiar. The next most logical spot would be looking into the guts of the piano from a few feet away. But don't stop there. Try it from farther away, mic the wall, tuck the mic up by the ceiling, go nuts.

Another approach is to go for close micing. This is a great way to go if you'll be adding reverb later. One quick and dirty solution is to just stuff that old SM57 in close to the sound board, somewhere around the fourth or fifth hole. For more attack you can move closer to the hammers. For more highs or lows you can move back and forth. Again, don't stop there. I heard a story once about micing the under side of the open lid with a 421 from about an inch away. I've tried it a couple times and when you find just the right spot it can be amazing.

Something that gets forgotten a lot is underneath the piano. Whether your top and/or ambient mics are mono or stereo, having a mic under the case can be a great tool to add some serious low end resonance. It's sort of like micing the back of a guitar amp. Not a choice you'd ever go with on its own, but killer in the right combination.

Take a listen Brethren of the Knob and fader. I spent a few minutes with our little old Yamaha at work and got a few captures for you. The sky is the limit if you're willing to spend a little time experimenting.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Room Setup

This one isn't strictly sound related but it's something many of us have had to deal with. A sound guy's duties often extend beyond just mixing and gear maintenance. Some of us are production and stage managers, lighting people, and last but not least... janitors. This one is for those of you who are in charge of moving the seats in a multi use venue.

Many churches, schools and of course banquet halls have spaces that are designed to handle different seating arrangements. Someone has to move the seats though and depending on the standards and requirements it can be quite a pain. Churches are a little more particular than most and this trick might be easiest for them to implement.

This all started with a call from a friend who wanted to know if there was an easier way to get straight rows without using strings or lasers. The idea we came up with still used lasers but on a robotic gimbal in the ceiling. Once a layout was programmed in, a seat could be selected on a tablet and the laser would point to where it goes. R & D was looking pretty expensive as well as figuring out how to make the software easy to use and have enough features.

I was just about to bag the idea when another one came to me. Instead of mounting a robot laser pointer in the ceiling, why not just park a wifi enabled security camera? Get the room set up the hard way, snap a pic and save it. Then next time just pull up the setup you want, set the live view from the cam to half transparency and start lining things up. In a church these days there's bound to be a projector and a screen. With the image ten feet across you could have as many people as you want lining up chairs and checking on the big screen.

There may be a couple tweaks needed such as changing the original images to a monochrome to make it easier to tell what's a real chair and what's on the layout. A web cam should be able to provide images to many computers at once though so even if a big screen wasn't available, two or more laptops on the scene could make the job easier.

There you go Brethren of the Knob and Fader. We don't just take care of your ears and your mixes, we're looking out for your spine and your patience too.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Low Shelf vs. Low Cut

A couple times recently the difference between types of EQ has come up. Specifically what the sonic difference was between the low EQ on a channel and the low cut button. In this instance both were labeled at 80 Hz so I can understand how the different uses could be confusing.

The difference is the shape of the filter. On less expensive consoles you'll often just get a low cut button near the trim pot. It turns on a filter with a very steep roll off below the labeled frequency. It's more properly called a high pass filter as it does a good job below the cutoff frequency and lets the highs pass relatively unaffected. On larger consoles it will often be labeled high pass and additionally have a sweep knob so you can set the cutoff frequency.

It's used not so much for shaping the sound as it is removing unwanted content. In a lot of cases the kick drum and bass guitar are the only channels without the low cut engaged. On a console with a sweep high pass you can do quite a nice job of not only removing stage rumble and popped consonants, but of preserving headroom in the system (or on the album). It can be used artistically as well. With a four band EQ at my disposal for vocals I'll sometimes roll the high pass up as far as 300 or 400 Hz on a female vocal. When things start to sound unnatural I back off a little.

Moving on to the channel EQ, the low EQ is most often a shelf EQ. That means that as you roll off gain the shape of the filter is such that all information below the cut off frequency is reduced the same amount. Again on larger consoles you'll often get a sweep knob to control where that cut off is. The frequency response graph looks like a shelf.

Really nice consoles and a lot of plugins will also let you switch the shape of the filter between shelf and band, which is the bell shaped curve seen on the mid EQs. A fully parametric EQ will even give you control over the width of the curve.

Knowing exactly what's behind those knobs at the top and bottom of the EQ section is what sets the Brethren of the Knob and Fader apart from the posers.  The next time you step up to an unfamiliar desk take a good look and make sure you know what you're dealing with before you start working your magic.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

SNR Podcast #31 - 1/13/2013 - MP3s, Live Mixing

This week Jon Dayton and Anth Kosobucki are joined by long absent panel members Gordon Wood and Karl Maciag.  After a quick revisit to last week's topics the subject of MP3s and how we consume music came up and then conversation turned to different methods of getting a mix together out in the wild. As always you can check it out on YouTube right here, or use the MP3 link below to stream or save for later.

  • SNR Podcast #31 - 1/13/3013 - Jon Dayton, Anth Kosobucki, Gordon Wood & Karl Maciag talk MP3s and music consumption then move on to live mixing.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Project Movie: Part Nine - Creating a Choir

When things get busy at work I wind up missing posts. Luckily I was working on some pretty interesting stuff the last couple days so I've got a mini podcast ready to show you some of it.

The task at hand was to come up with some choir vocals to finish up the music for our DVD at work. At our live performance the choir entered the room from the back and spread out through the audience in white robes. It sounded pretty cool in the room but there was no way to get a good recording of that. The plan was to get the choir back in and record their parts.

A couple weeks of illness and daily grind business put us very close to being finished with the live elements but still without a choir. We resolved to take the DIY path and have a couple ringers sing all the parts. In the end we went one better than that and my boss (who has an unbelievable falsetto) just sang them all himself.
This solved a couple problems and also let us make a couple really cool artistic choices. The first was logistics. It's just plain difficult to get two dozen volunteers all in one place at the same time. With just me and my boss in the room, we wrapped it all up in less time than it probably would have taken to do with a full choir. The second problem is phrasing and intonation. If you listened to the first mini podcast  about merging three separate performances together you'll remember that one of the issues was the ends of phrases. With just one person singing (one very talented person mind you) the phrasing was nearly identical and there weren't any bad notes.

What this left us with though, as you'll hear, is a very unearthly sounding choir. You might think it sounds synthetic and that's because it is. The best choir in the world couldn't sound like this because it's all one voice. Lucky for us that's what we wanted. A choir of angels shouldn't sound like Sunday morning down at the church, it should sound better, different. And that's what we got. It ended up sounding kind of like a boys choir.

Check out the MP3 link below Brethren of the Knob and Fader and I'll show you how we did it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Scooped EQ - Public Perception

If there's one thing I love about mixing live audio is the control you have. There are a million things that can conspire against you but at least you're the one driving and you don't have to worry about how the band will sound on someone's iPod.

That's the classic problem. You make a mix in the studio and you love it. Then you have to send it off into the world and hope that it translates well on every crappy car stereo with one speaker out, every clock radio, every pair of headphones, and every bedroom stereo with the bass and treble boosted all the way up.  The last is the worst part to me. I've been places a number of times where I tried to show people with smiley face curves on their stereo EQs what listening flat sounds like and the immediate response is, "That sucks! Put it back!".

People like their big bass and crispy highs. It sounds good. The problem is, after a few minutes it starts to wear on the ears and in short order the lows and highs are maxed out. I'm guilty of it myself though. I like to feel the bass when I drive and I boost the highs (a little) to fight road noise. To a certain extent I guess it doesn't matter. The fact that most audio out there on the internet is 128k MP3s (or worse) means that people are really just after the groove and the hook and don't care so much about how it sounds.

A brief pause for everyone with 4.7 terabytes of lossless music on your hard drives to swallow hard and get back to reading.

That's the simple fact though. Most people are listening to crap files on crap equipment and we somehow have to make our stuff sound good on all of it. That brings us to some pretty weighty decisions when it comes time to make those final mixes. Do you keep a scooped EQ handy to patch in and check your mix? Do you keep a pair of tiny speakers on hand to hear what your mix will sound like on a computer in an office? Do you hear it on your MP3 player? In the car?

The big boys do all that and more to make sure things will translate well. But most often those are just checks at the end. The best of the best don't check at all. They know their gear and know how their mixes will translate. For the rest of us it's a matter of working toward that confidence level. But know that it's good practice to do your mixes flat and then see how they sound on hyped systems.
Don't fall in to the trap Brethren of the Knob and Fader. Make a pure product and then let the public screw it up if they want to. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

SNR Playlist #5: Van Halen - Stay Frosty

I'm stealing the reins from Brother Anthony for this SNR Playlist. I've been a life long VH fan and I've been languishing with the rest while the boys squabbled about who's fronting the band. It seems like these days with three fourths of the band bearing the Van Halen name they've got enough clout to make Dave or whoever else is gonna be out front toe the line and voila! we get a new record and a tour (finally). 

Side note: Personally I'm of the opinion that it doesn't matter what bloated sack of ego is fronting the band, sooner or later he's going to shut his festering gob and we get to hear the greatest living guitar player and his brother (and son) work some magic.
I picked this track because I thought it was just a goofy throw away track when I heard the record for the first time.  Then doesn't the band go and pick it to be the second single for radio release. They always did have a terrible time with that. But the second or third time I heard it I realized I was starting to get excited and here's why.

It starts out with just acoustic guitar on an old time blues riff and Dave rambling on about philosophy. But once you know what's coming it goes from being stupid to being one of the best suspense builders I've heard in a while. Because you know that around the 1:10 mark The Family is going to come crashing in and just blow the doors off the thing.

Eddie Van Halen has always been one of the most particular guys about his guitar sound. The thing is, beyond some really pretty basic setup tricks, he's just making a little out of a lot with the way that he plays. there aren't fourteen layers of guitar there. I heard it from Ross Hogarth over on Pensado's Place that Eddie was using two heads and two cabs to get a big stereo sound, but that's it. The rest of it comes down to just having one of the most expressive right hands in the business and one other small trick.

Ed would tune his guitar to the chord. That's where you get an ax all in tune with a pedal or strobe tuner and then usually you knock the third a little flat so it sits better. That way he can play these huge major chords that usually sound awful with a ton of distortion (hence the root, fifth, octave power chord so dominant in heavy music, no third to weigh it down) and they just become steam rollers of huge rock goodness. Guys love it and even their girlfriends will listen to it which is one of the many reasons for their success over the years.

So now you've got Dave singing along with some background vocals which sound like they're also him. They're panned pretty far out which helps his vocal maintain its place once the rest of the band comes crashing in (props to young Wolfie for laying down a bass line worthy of his predecessor). The bluesy acoustic guitar sticks with us during the initial blast of electric guitar, drums and bass and then makes a couple reappearances when that same riff comes back around. Speaking of the back line, Alex's snare still has that classic sound that many try to duplicate.

Another of my favorite things about Eddie's playing is that there's no rhythm guitar line under the solos. It's just not something he's ever done and it makes the records sound more like what VH is, a great live band. Pantera was another band that did this, not so much on the albums but in live performances. They could have hired a player to get those rhythm lines in there but instead relied on the strength of the back section and the solo to carry the song through.

A few other tidbits that along with the acoustic guitar keep things interesting. Alex is just playing his sticks when the last verse comes around. Even if you can't remember the words you know the end of the song is coming because of that.

All in all it should be just a forgettable, silly song but I find myself listening to it over and over again because of all the attention to detail that's put into it. Not to sound all starry eyed over it but I'm not sure anyone else could have pulled off a number like this. Let it be a lesson to you Brethren of the Knob and Fader, not everything is what it seems. Careful planning and execution can make a great number out of the oddest stuff.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Max D Is Going to Change MP3s Forever

I was listening to the Audio Nowcast on the way to work and heard something that got me very interested. The link will take you to the episode, things start getting interesting about a half hour from the end. They had the developers of a new technology called Max-D on. Some pretty cool guys who have had their hands deep in the industry for decades. You should really just go check it all out for yourself but I'll give you the short version here quick. (Start with the company site, hear the demos, then check out the podcast to get a little deeper when you're done here.)

The 128k MP3 makes up 90% of the audio on the internet. That said it was time to do something to make things a little better. The process deals with phase issues, flat topping from over use of compression, and a few other things. You wind up with the same size file but it sounds a whole lot better. The claim is that with some (but obviously not all) material you could end up with a 128k MP3 with more dynamics and better sound than the 16/44.1 CD it came from.

The product is already baked into a couple Android apps and is coming to iOS soon. It's also applicable to broadcast of all types as you can see in some of the examples. It has the added benefit of not being an encode/decode process like Dolby was, you just apply it at the start and nobody has to wait around for equipped devices to come out. It's also said to retain the properties of the audio through multiple encodes which is good news for broadcast. By the time a program hits your set it can go through up to eight of those and with this process still maintain 95% of the original fidelity.

What's coming down the pike is what's really exciting. You'll have to dig into the podcast to get a load of it though. In short, the process will be available on the web. You upload your track. That can be anything from the single you're working on to your Beatles collection. You get a 90 second preview and all the time you want to twiddle the controls. Then it will be fifty cents a pop to process. It's a bit much if you're thinking about doing your whole iTunes library but six bucks is basically nothing to insure that the album you put your heart and soul into still has width and depth by the time it makes it out into iPod land. It's a clear cut case of shut up and take my money!

But don't take my word for it. Even on the low bitrate demos that are on the site you can hear the difference. Every time you hear a beep it's switching back and forth between original and processed. Even on cheap headphones I was able to hear the dynamic range and stereo field open up. The compression artifacts were still there but it's enough to give you an idea of what could be done with pristine original content.

Don't get too excited though. Your friends won't care because they still won't be able to tell the difference between a crappy MP3 and a CD. If this catches on though it's going to cross one thing off the list that audio people have to be sad about. So go check it out Brethren of the Knob and Fader. It's a brave new world.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

SNR Podcast #30 - 1/6/2013 - Slow Week

Everyone was still recovering from the holidays as Jon Dayton and Anth Kosobucki were joined by Gordon Wood this week. A few interesting things happened at recent gigs and then topics wound in and out one of the more interesting items is a new process for mastering MP3s which is worth a deeper look. As always you can check it out on YouTube right here or use the MP3 link below to stream or save for later. And let us know what you think. Look us up on Facebook and drop us a line. We'd love to hear from you. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

User Interface

I listened to some people going back and forth recently about new ideas for user interfaces for manipulating audio. One was kind of bored with the old knob and fader setup (don't take offense Brethren) and the other was trying to get at why that wasn't working for him and what would work better.

As it turned out, knobs and faders are pretty good tools for what we do. You can be extremely clinical and say things like, "let's go in and take a little 500 cycles out of that rack tom, three dB, an octave wide." and you can also get very free and creative by just running things back and forth until it feels corrected, or right, or new, or interesting. Like it or lump it you can cram a lot of control into a little space with the traditional interface elements. That's why so many plugins look exactly like real world gear, or an approximation thereof.

But where the new ideas come in to play is for the experimenters. While an engineer with set goals and an idea in his or her head probably wouldn't be interested in having a cube of space in front of their monitor that they can wiggle their fingers in and have the audio change (like this one for instance), someone looking to create new sounds and be free of traditional limitations might be all for it. Picture it though. You've got an orb on your screen that will change the EQ and other parameters on a track depending on how you wave your hands in front of the screen. There's two camps, how the hell do I get this thing to take 500 off the rack tom and the other camp that's singing "A Whole New World" in the back of their head while they dive in.

The truth is, people have been floating ideas out there like this for decades (three at least) and it just hasn't caught on. Even with digital mixers having tablet remote, some with virtual stages that you can position instruments on to control level and pan, it's just not what people want. Sort of like video phones. Sure there's great examples like the Korg Kaos pad but you see who that's aimed at. Creators, experimenters, people looking to free form.

What are your thoughts on the subject Brethren of the Knob and Fader? Hit the comments section below or better yet, look us up on Facebook and drop us a line.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Everything Old Is New Again

There's nothing new under the sun. That quote goes way back to the Old Testament. Since then we've seen the advent of all sorts of new and interesting things. But really, it's all been done. As much as something revolutionizes travel or communication or information or music, it's really only just another notch in the endless wheel of time. I don't want to get too philosophical but I've had some ideas about going backwards to go forwards that I wanted to get out. This doesn't just apply to musicians. I'm talking to the techs and the mix engineers too.

I think one of the best ways to come up with something new and interesting is to revisit something from two or more generations ago. Take anything, long hair on guys, the tightness or looseness of jeans, how we like our music mixed, it all pretty much goes back and forth every few years. It's almost a binary system. Except for the sheer brilliance of the human mind that makes each new iteration not just a do over but something that's somehow new and interesting. When big sideburns became fashionable again a few years back they're somehow very now and instantly recognizable as the current iteration of the fad and not the big burns of the 1970s or Elizabethan England.

So here's how this happens in our little area of expertise. Kids grow up on a certain kind of music. It becomes ingrained in them at a critical time in their life. Then they go on and music changes. Eventually they find themselves in the driver's seat, either as musicians or technicians. Their minds go back to those formative years and tweeze out the best elements of the music they loved and weave it in to something new.

Take a look at recorded music in a very general sense. In the 1950s everything was very raw but so exciting. As palettes became refined and technology and technique improved things got steadily slicker. Eventually it got so slick that in order to be different things had to go back to being raw. So the raw excitement was there again but in a more sophisticated environment where people are able to decide what's gritty and what's a little more polished. Rinse and repeat through garage rock and punk in the 1970s, through the highly polished rock and pop of the 1980s, the grunge movement took it back the other way, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum.

I said all that to say this Brethren of the Knob and Fader. If you're stuck for inspiration go back a decade or so and see if you can remember what was great about music and the way it was made. Then skip over another generation and look again. Keep going back as far as you like and then bring the very best bits with you when you sit down to work.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Noise Removal Plugins - Izotope RX2

I see a lot of people asking about how to remove noise from a recording. In the immortal words of Mr. Miyagi, "Best block no be there". In other words, do all you can to get a clean recording in the first place because once that hum or crackle is in there it's awfully hard to remove.

If you're clever with gear or a DAW you can apply notch filters, expanders and a few other tricks but the best tool out there though by far is Izotope RX. It's got separate tools to denoise, declick, remove hum, a spectrographic display module to get a clear picture of what your working on and a tool called Spectral Repair.

The whole suite is a step above (at least) of anything you've likely used before. The tools are really top notch for getting the noise out and leaving as much of your program material behind, unharmed. The Spectral Repair tool is the crowning glory though. If nothing else works and you just have to cut a section right out, this tool resynthesizes the audio to fill in the gap as seamlessly as possible. 

On the forums a lot of people balk at the price. If you're working on just one low budget project it's hard to justify the expense. If you do any amount of work though, even if you're getting solid tracks from good sources it's well worth the expense to be able to reliably fix those troublesome issues. I've done it the hard way and I've used many a plugin to try and clean up flawed audio. Izotope has really nailed it and it's not for nothing that they're the most recommended tool for the job.
The picture is just a picture, use the text link to check out the details.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Luciar - Feeling A Little Emo - (Review)

Happy New Year! I have a little more music for you. You may remember the interview post I did with an old college friend Luciar. It's worth a read as she independently confirms a lot of the ideas we talk about here. Shortly after that interview she was finishing up her current album and asked me to take a listen to it.

(Before I get too far there is some language so keep that in mind if you were thinking of listening at work or with the kids around.)

I'd encourage you do click over there and have a listen yourself (then buy it!). It's probably sort of like something but it's not really like anything I've ever heard. It's sort of part girl singer/songwriter stuff, part NIN fan,  part show tunes. The last bit was what really got me. As I progressed from song to song I got the feeling like I was sitting in a theatre watching different acts come on. They're all part of the same show but each was unique. Before I was done listening I had a whole cast, vivid imagery in my mind, including set pieces.

Something she said in the interview particularly stuck with me. It was about the way she'll listen to something she's working on and be thinking about the frequencies she's hearing and the emotions and then deciding if a spot should be filled in or left blank. I think that method did a great job as the album is full of texture and space. Some songs feel like they're coming right off a stage in a tiny theatre, some feel like a street cafe in an old European city. Some are sweet and embracing and some turn edgy and threatening.

I could go on and on but I'll encourage you to just get over there and take a listen for yourself. A couple passes through would be a good education for both the aspiring engineer and songwriter. Check it out on your speakers and then hear it again in the headphones so you can get a load of all the tasty little details that are tucked away around the edges of every track.

The album is available on iTunes and Amazon so don't be stingy. You can't hear every track on the website. Fork over a couple bucks and get this stuff on your iPod. Listen well Brethren of the Knob and Fader, and learn what you can do with just your wits and a few simple tools.